On episode 244 of the Top Pair Home Game Poker Podcast, along with my co-host Bruce Briggs, I interviewed Gene Hull. Gene is a longtime poker enthusiast who has engaged in plenty of poker-related activities over the years including authoring a poker book called Poker Knows, inventing a unique product called the Poker Hoody, and becoming a well-regarded poker coach. Below, you’ll find the entirety of Episode 244 of the podcast, which includes the interview with Gene starting at the 15:30-minute mark. You can also read the transcript below.
Welcome to the Top Pair Home Game Poker Podcast. Thanks for joining us, we have a great show lined up for you today. We’re excited to have with us as a guest today, Gene Hull. He’s an author, a poker coach, an entrepreneur and an all-round poker enthusiast. Gene, thanks for joining us.
Thanks Bruce, it’s good to be here today.
How did you get started with poker?
Friends got me into it and it was something fun to do. Probably the same way it started for 99% of most folks – it started with a home game. Sitting down with friends playing 5 Card Draw and 7 Card Stud, 10 years before we learnt there were other games we could play.
That’s really where I got started. It snowballed from there and it led to me creating products for the business, studying the game, moving up to Vegas to play professionally, and writing the book. I recently started coaching now too and I’ve found that I really like teaching and sharing what I learned with others, almost more than anything.
Where do you hail from originally?
I’m an army brat so I’ve been all over the place, but I grew up on the East Coast in the Baltimore and Northern Virginia Area and that’s where the home games started. The official big time home game probably started in around 2003 when the Moneymaker Effect hit.
So did you have a bankroll when you came to Vegas? Did you have another job lined up or was it a leap of faith?
I was in the retirement community business in my twenties. I had experience with new projects and getting things done. It was not a traditional job. Even though I was hired and had a salary, it was an entrepreneurial venture with the company I was with, building a new community. That led to me having the courage to try other things. A friend and I acquired the press systems from the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. We put those back together and that almost worked but I found that when you get involved with too many partners and it’s too high tech, the risk is extremely high.
It all led to this process of loving poker, deciding that I might want to give it a try. I spent two summers going to Vegas for six weeks to test my skills and everything seemed fine so I moved out to Vegas. Shortly after, I realized that I did not want to play poker 40 hours a week for 10 years.
But there’s monthly freeroll offers though!
Yeah freerolls are just a way to get you in the wrong casino on a wrong day. Maybe not, I mean all those extras are really great!
Yeah they’ve got soup everyday!
Trust me I’ve had plenty of $500 lunches. I go to the casino because they have great sandwiches and then I call my friend John and tell him I’ve just had a $500 lunch and he doesn’t quite know what I mean. After that, I started the Poker Hoody business and I guess I’m just not afraid to fail. I know what failure is but to me it just means you just have to try again. Whatever success I’ve had it’s because I haven’t let the failures stop me. Instead I just take it as a lesson. I try to teach the same thing when I’m coaching people about poker. If I was to summarize how to succeed it would be on one page – you know what to do, just keep going. Unfortunately people like the 1,2,3s and A,B,Cs, and we provide that as well but the biggest part is the mindset.
You mentioned the Poker Hoody and we’ve spoken about it on previous episodes, so why don’t you tell the listeners exactly what it is. What sort of products are you offering?
The Poker Hoody is an idea I came up with in about 2008-2009. It took about a year to setup with the prototyping and getting the manufacturing set up. In short, the poker hoody is a neoprene conforming table cover that converts your home table into a poker table. It’s a 3mm neoprene table cover with a bungee cord. You can check out the designs on www.pokerhoody.com. It came to me after I had moved to Vegas and bought a house and I drove home to spend 3 months getting the rest of my stuff. Of course during those 3 months I played in 8 home games and we were still playing on a table with a blanket on the top and whatever we could come up with. I decided that we needed something better.
During the week, while everyone was at work and I was at home sitting on the couch trying to figure out how I could play poker better when I went back to Vegas, I came up with the Poker Hoody. Since then, it’s just been a little odyssey that has been profitable every year. I’m not getting rich by any means but it’s been a lot of fun and I’ve met a lot of different people at the different trade shows I’ve been to. To me that’s what’s important the most, as well as being able to do what I want.
Do you invent things regularly? Was this the first thing you invented?
How many things have you guys invented that you’ve never done anything about? I think a lot of people have had very good ideas, but I think it’s the next 90% that’s hard, and that’s getting it done. I’ve had a lot of great ideas but this is the first one that I just took and ran with.
Do you have a patent on it and are you pretty much exclusive with this?
We’re fairly exclusive and you’d have to talk to my lawyers about that. I’ve spent way too much money getting legal advice on that. In a lot of ways patents are just an expensive lottery ticket. They’re great but they’re expensive and if someone infringes you might have a case but you’ve got to send the army out to take care of that, but yes, we do enjoy some exclusivity.
Do you ship all over the United States? I imagine there’s home game players playing all over the world.
We ship all over the world. We’ve shipped in a dozen countries so far, including the US. I get a lot of sales in Texas and California. Oddly there are a lot of players in the Maryland and Virginia area, but maybe it’s my guys from the home game helping me market. I’ve even gone there recently and played in the new casinos, The Horseshoe and the Maryland Live – great games!
That’s very cool. We’ve talked about the poker hoody numerous times on here. In our group there’s 8-10 people that use the product. I think that it hits the home game players right square in the forehead. It’s perfect for people who don’t want to invest in a poker table or those who just don’t have room for one.
Thanks for the promotion you guys have given me I really appreciate that.
It’s a great product and it works well too. When I started playing home games I used to put the blanket or a sheet so the cards and chips wouldn’t fly off. It’s a great inexpensive compromise that helps you play a smoother game, as opposed to dedicating a table and spending a lot of money.
We get a lot of people running poker leagues, people running non-profits, who buy a dozen of them and set up a charity event. The poker hoody is a perfect solution for a multi-table event.
I remember when I was a kid, my dad had his home game in LA and they’d have a rotating game where every week they’d all go to a different player’s house. With the poker hoody there’s no need for 7 poker tables. A group of players can pitch in and own a hoody together for their games.
It’s definitely better than playing than a hard tile table.
I wanted to go into another entity that I’ve mentioned numerous times. That’s the Wednesday Poker Discussion Group. Today is a Wednesday, are you going to be able to make it there in time?
I’ll make it and its okay if I miss one every once in a while. Today we have David Chicotsky, also known as The Maven, coming over as our guest. I’m sure he’ll have a lot of information. The word Maven is a word that means a lot to him as it does to me. It’s someone that conveys knowledge so I like that already. We’ve had Olivier Busquet, Daniel Negreanu, Mike Sexton a couple of times, Michael Binger, and more that are yet to come. There’s always a high level of professional opinion on what to do, even though I have to say we don’t always get people to agree, but it’s okay because that’s what makes poker great.
Do you come ready with a lot of questions for the speakers?
I try to come with an open mind and if a question hits me, I’ll ask. I have a reputation of stirring the talk a bit. I like asking questions that can’t be answered as it gets people to think as opposed to having a question with an exact answer. There are a lot of intelligent people with a strong opinion so it can get very competitive. It’s a really diverse group of people. We have a lot of fun together.
So for those who don’t know what we’re talking about, this is called The Wednesday Poker Discussion Group, or the WPDG. It started 12 years ago. Originally the first meetings took place in a coffee shop in Binion’s. You said it gets competitive when there is disagreement on interpretation and different opinions, but what I think is cool is that everybody leaves their poker competitiveness at the door and everyone is open to discussing as opposed to not wanting to give away anything because you might all play against each other at some point. You’re all willing to participate and share knowledge and information. I really envy that. Now you took things a step further and you’re recording the meetings and sharing it them with people who would have missed the meeting. You also have social events for Christmas and Thanksgiving, and you organize a lot of charitable events.
Sounds like you’re a fan. You should move to Vegas to be able to join us.
You also start discussions via email, where someone will throw a subject and you’ll have 50 emails or more in a week, and it’s people tossing their opinions back and forth.
The Wednesday Poker Discussion Group meets every Wednesday at the corner of Decatur and Flamingo at Ricardo’s Restaurant in Las Vegas from 3-5pm if anyone wants to know. We meet from 3-5pm but some people come a little earlier for lunch. The book that I’ve recently written, “Poker Knows” has a lot to do with what you mentioned about the WPDG. Even though the bigger part of it is about socializing, getting together and about all the things we do outside of poker, poker is what brings us together. All of the discussions and emails – which I love the most because you can really express yourself without the need to fight for audio time – are a big part of the book I wrote. I probably would not have written the book if I had not participated in the group. I have a lot of people at the group to thank for that.
From the emails I’ve read you seem to be one of the leaders of the group. Do you have titles? A chairman, or a President? Do you have designated responsibilities?
My unofficial title is probably The Guy With Too Many Opinions. They’re usually just ideas and I’m trying to stir the pot. We have so many different specialists in the group: psychologists, lawyers, engineers, doctors, and so many smart people, and what I like to do is spark a discussion so that all the ideas can come in from everybody. There’s a core of people that participate more than others, but a lot of people participate in the emails. There’s a core group of 15-20 people that are there every Wednesday. You’re right, we do leave our competitiveness at the door when it comes to trying to find out stuff about our opponents but there’s a lot of competition in a healthy format in the way we debate things. If we ask the question: “What is equity?” we’ll spend the whole day talking about what equity means.
How did you come up with the title for the book? “Poker Knows” is a very interesting title.
I like topics that are stretchy and that you can’t pin down. I thought the title meant a lot of different things. Poker knows a lot of things that it can teach us, not just poker related stuff, and then there’s stuff we need to know about poker. So there are a lot of nuances that could be in that name.
From a marketing perspective you want the word “poker” as the first word. Not everyone liked it but a lot of people liked the cover. Poker is very stretchy game because not everyone is making the same decisions. If you have a situation where everyone is going to make the same decision, no money really moves. It’s like the stock market, everyone who’s chasing the big stocks is going to keep up with the pack just like AA, KK, and AK. The only way you really win is by making money in the speculative areas. That’s what the book deals with a lot.
It’s a very recent release right?
Yes. I finished it in June and put out in the middle of June. It’s a blend of poker, philosophy, quantum mechanics, and some of Alice’s friends in Wonderland. It’s mostly literature. This isn’t in the book but here’s an example. If I gave you a screwdriver, and told you that it’s a screwdriver and told you what it’s used for, and then told you to go practice with it on a thousand screws, you’ll be an expert on it. Or else, I could give you this object without telling you what it was and told you to go see what you could do with it. I’ll guarantee you that when you run into a screw you’ll know exactly what to do, but you’ll also learn a lot of other things that you could do with a screwdriver. That’s what the book’s all about. We’ve been told a lot of times how to play poker, but we’re the screwdrivers, it’s up to us to figure out what to do next. That’s a big part about success in poker, business, and anything.
That’s really cool. Writing a book fascinates me. I do a lot of writing but it’s the one article at a time kind of writing. You clearly at some point decided that you wanted to write a whole book, which is over 200 pages long, and then you went through a process of learning how to write it, dealing with the editors, etc. How long did it all take and what was that experience like?
That’s a great question. It started with me writing a lot of essays with my poker group, sort of like what you do, and then the essays started getting a bit too long. 500 words seem to be the right amount but when you start going over a thousand you can start losing people. I took a creative writing course around a year before I started writing the book. I learned a lot about what I like to write. I like writing poetry because it’s a concise way of delivering a big message.
I started going my essays from the poker group and someone asked me if I was ever going to put all those essays into a book. It turned out that it’s really difficult to turn old essays into a book. It’s easier to just start over. Some of the essays and poems that I’ve written in the past made it into the book but the process was really about getting it all out, trying to say everything that I wanted to say and not realizing that while doing that I was learning 80% of the other things that would be in the book – how to communicate clearly, and how to make it simple enough so that the person grasps it and wants to continue to go with it. I think that the key to learning is giving someone a taste of something that they really like. Once they have that, they’ll figure out the rest of the way on their own and you won’t need to force feed them. Sometimes trying to teach someone too many things at once, like a golf swing, is just a miss. However, if I teach you a good finish, and a good starting position, you’ll get most of the stuff in the middle on your own. On the other hand if I teach you all the stuff in the middle you’ll get confused and you probably won’t have fun.
That’s the idea behind the book, and that’s where all of the characters from Alice in Wonderland come in. A lot of that has to do with when Alice runs into the cat, and asks where she should go from here. The cat says, “well it really doesn’t matter, eventually you’re going to get somewhere.” You just have to keep going, and that’s what I did. Writing the book is the easy part. Rewriting and editing is the difficult part.
For sure! Now that the writing bug has bitten you, do you see you writing more books in the future?
Yes, absolutely. I’m working on two additional books right now. One book is about poker and the other is about life. The poker book is about bluffing. For me, bluffing is one of the points where players start getting into the uncomfortable zone. Yes it’s uncomfortable when you don’t know pot odds, and stuff like that, but you can learn all of the odds, like how often you get aces. You can pin that down pretty good, but bluffing is guesswork. It’s like you’re a spy in enemy territory and you don’t want to be found out. For a lot of folks, that level breaking through and learning how to bluff is kind of similar to what happens in life. When you start a business it’s like you’re learning how to bluff, because you take a risk and you don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s kind of a hallmark in a professional player’s career. Once you learn how to bluff, where the equity lives, and it becomes profitable, it’s very addictive. Pulling off a great bluff is awesome. Picking up a bluff is a great feeling too. When you call down a huge pot with a one pair hand, it might be dumb but you feel good when you get it right.
That’s the area that I need coaching on – bluffing. I trace mine back to my childhood and growing up. I live in a religious home, a very loving home, but when my mom asked me, “Did you do this?” or “Where are you going,” and then no matter what I’d say she’d look at me and say, “Remember, no matter what you say, I’ll always know the truth and I’ll find it out.” She always did! She was like a witch. If I tried to say something wrong, a couple of hours later she’ll let me know that she found out the truth.
You also mentioned that you’ve started poker coaching. Is that recent?
Yes, just recently. About two months ago is when I announced that I would start. I picked up some students that wanted to start early, so I let out the secret earlier than expected, in the spring. I do private lessons, small groups and what I’m looking forward to doing is meet up with a group of players who come out to town for a poker vacation and they want a pro available after a tournament, or at the hotel. Even just going out to play golf for 4 hours and talking about poker. You can learn a lot about poker without cards. For a lot of players that I coach that already know the game, I find that it’s the mental component of the game that require the most work. When you’re talking about the mental components of the game, you’re not talking about cards, and odds, so it feels like you’re not coaching poker sometimes. Then there are some students who want to jump back to the in-game elements like what hands they should play. There’s a point where you can’t tell someone what to do exactly, and you almost have to tell them to just feel the water and see what it feels like to float and swim, and then learn stuff on their own. I can tell them everything I know about the water and what’s going to happen in certain situations, but first they need to actually get into the water, or the game, and try new things and realize that they’re going to fail. A lot of the good poker players lose 40-45% of the time, but if you’re heads up and you win 60% of your matches, you’re crushing it, but it won’t feel like that when you lose 5 matches in a row, it will feel terrible.
Well it looks like you’ve got a lot on your plate. When you said you’ll make a living at poker you probably imagined yourself playing, and you might not have envisaged these kind of things. It’s good to have more than one thing to rely on, but with all of this going on, do you play much poker anymore of do you have a hard time trying to fit it in?
When you say fit it in, for me I do get into a phase where I feel that I’m over-packed and trying to fit things in but I try to pull myself out of that phase, because when you try to fit things in then you’ve got too much on your plate. So I try to eat when I’m hungry, sleep when I’m tired, write when I’m inspired, go play poker when it feels like that’s what I want to go do.
Oh my god that’s the best quote I’ve heard in a month. Wow that’s an amazing line.
Well you still have to go chop the wood and carry the water, so to speak. You still have to fill the till and pay the bills and feed yourself, but if you hold those things in your mind and you do whatever you want, everything kind of takes care of itself. I’ve got my days where I have to go empty a truck, or move some boxes and my back is sore for four days. However, I try not to think about when that week or that day is going to come because that’s too much stress. When it gets here, I just do it. So to your question, I don’t play as much as I used to. The first few years, I couldn’t get enough of playing and reading and researching about the game. In the last year and a half I’ve probably spent more time writing and thinking about the game than playing. Recently I’ve been playing a little bit more and my goal is to move my game to the higher stakes – to $5/$10, $10/$20 and higher. Some of that is an issue of bankroll. There’s a lot of debate about how big of a bankroll is required. You only need to have enough for the next bet to be quite honest and then you just get more money. So that’s my goal, to challenge myself to move up. I don’t really play for the money, I play for the challenge of it. I’d love to be able to succeed at the nosebleed stakes.
What games do you prefer when you play? Is it strictly Hold’em or are you getting into the mixed games, Omaha, or Stud?
I really like Hold’em. I like all the games, and in the home games we play all the games. For some reason they really like Omaha Eight or better, which drives me bananas trying to figure out the split pots. I want the whole pot, and it’s just easier to figure out odds. Hold’em allows for more elasticity and error rates that players make because it’s more of a decision and information game. Omaha is more of a card game because people are staying in, there are a lot of draws and it almost always goes to the river. Hold’em is more of a game where you’re really just trying to figure out what your opponent’s are valuing. I take a very intuitive approach to poker and I understand a lot of the math, and that’s running in the background, but generally I’m not thinking about my equity during a hand. What I’m thinking about at the beginning of the hand is how my opponents are valuing. If they’re valuing weakly I can force them off their hand. If they’re valuing strongly, you just get out of the way, or you get in the way if you have a strong hand. I’m trying to get my opponents to overvalue more if I have a great hand, or undervalue their hand so that they’ll fold. I’m worrying about the odds when the money is going in but the main goal is to figure out how they’re valuing,
Being in Vegas with countless venues you could go play at, do you still play home games or is it strictly in casinos and card rooms?
I play home games when I go back to Virginia and Maryland. I’ve tried to get some home games running in Vegas but it’s hard for some reason. I wouldn’t mind a home game a couple of times a month just for the fun of it. When people find out that you’ve written a book and that you coach, not a lot of them will want to play with you in a home game. You have to take it easy on people or keep the stakes low enough. Around town I play in a dozen different rooms. I got into a spot with Ashley Adams, who I think you know from House of Cards.
Yes, we’ve had him on the show before as a guest (Ed. note: see link above).
I said I like to play in all of the casinos where the weakest opponents play, which is true, but there’s something I put ahead of that. I like to play in a nice environment where there’s good food and clean air. Sometimes those things conflict and since I’m really not in it for the money, and since I’m winning in all of the tougher games in the nicer casinos, I’d rather play there. I like to play at the Wynn, at the Aria, Red Rock, and Mandalay Bay. Some of the better games are in the MGM, and the tourist attractions along the strip. You can get some juicy games over there.
Cool. When was that point when you said to yourself: “Hey, I think I can charge someone money to learn poker from me?” When did you feel that you reached that point and decided to get into coaching in the first place. Clearly you know what you’re talking about, you’re well spoken and you know how to market yourself. I mean it. Hearing you over this Top Pair Home Game Poker Podcast, it’s great to speak to someone who’s thinking a lot about the game and who’s very involved. At the beginning we said that you are an enthusiast, but really you’re on the extreme end of it – A real great lover of the game. What made you decide to start training and helping people to do the same?
Thank you for that. To back up a little on that, probably in 2004 when I read my first poker book and realized that there’s a technical approach to the game, I realized that just knowing that would give me an edge. Then playing poker for 10 years recreationally, and mostly from participating in our Wednesday group, and building up a sense of confidence and not being afraid to say something and being wrong. I think that’s the best way to learn as long as you’re not afraid of taking a risk and being wrong sometimes. So probably 2-3 years ago is when it hit me that I could coach. Some people had asked me if I had ever considered it, but I didn’t want to start coaching before I had written the book. I also didn’t want to start playing the big events until I had written a book. I think the best success you can have in poker is to have a business going and then when you hit it big in a tournament, and then you have all this background to carry forward. It’s so hard to make a living just playing poker, unless you’re one of these top 10 guys who are getting branded and getting sponsored, and even for those guys it’s getting harder as some of the sponsors have pulled back. So it’s a tough question asking me when the exact moment was, because I don’t think there was one. I’ve always loved teaching. Even in 2004 when I was playing against my friends I would love teaching them, even though I was playing against them trying to take their money, as soon as learned pot odds I couldn’t help myself, I had to teach them even though it wouldn’t improve my hourly rate. I’ve always been that way.
That’s cool. So it sort of happened naturally?
One more thing. You said you sort of wait to hit that big strike, so have you had that big win yet, that gigantic cash game session that you could write home about that propelled you to the next level?
I won a bad beat jackpot a few years ago for $42,000.
Wait were you the winner of the bad beat?
No, I was the loser, which made it even better because it was twice as much money as was in the actual pot that my opponent won. He still needles me every week when he sees me at the Red Rock. I have not really taken any shots at big events like the main event. When I say big events I mean $5000 – $10000 buy in events. I just know from the math and the technical aspects of it just how hard it is to win, and how many buy-ins you need. You could be down a $100,000 before you break even. So I’ve been waiting to do that and I’m getting close to taking that risk. That’s probably one of my leaks. I don’t take as many risks as these other guys, but that’s also part of the reason that I’ve been able to keep things together. My lifestyle hasn’t changed. I’ve been able to eat whatever I want, but still I don’t have Omaha Steaks everyday. I enjoy my life and the best advantage is living well. That’s what I try to do, live well and share my knowledge with other so that they can do that too.
That’s fantastic. We sure do appreciate you taking the time. Fascinating things you got to talk about and some of them right on target to our home game listeners, who will definitely in this week’s notes put down links to your Poker Hoody, your book, and the page where you promote your coaching. Anything else you want to some up before we wrap things up?
I can’t believe it’s been 40 minutes already. I’ve got two sheets of stuff we haven’t gone through yet, but I’ll save them for next time. I tend to over-prepare, but you told me it was going to be a casual hangout sort of thing, so I decided to just let it flow like that and not worry about things. I’ve got so many stories from the home games, and all the nicknames we come up with. I’m sure you’ve got them too. Mostly I just want to thank your listeners for joining us today and allowing me to share what I’ve learned. Come visit me at pokerhoody.com, and pokerknows.com, and send me an email about any comments you have about the book and the product. I really want to thank you Bruce and Robbie, for all you’ve done and for having me on here.
What’s your email, Gene?
I can be reached at [email protected] and you can also find me on the web at www.pokerhoody.com.
That’s great. I think we’ll make an effort to have you back in a couple of months to hear about those stories from the home games. It’s been very enjoyable speaking to you Gene.
Thanks a lot guys.